Taking charge in a new leadership position
If this year follows the pattern of recent years, we can expect many leadership changes. Over the year there'll be roughly 75 new CEOs, 200 new Chief Marketing Officers, and over half a million new management appointments in S&P 500 companies alone. Across the entire U.S. economy, 3 million managers and 10 million workers will start new roles. And that's just the U.S.
Given the magnitude of these numbers, how individuals start their new positions -- whether they get off to a strong start in their first 100 days, or whether they stumble into common pitfalls -- will have a major impact on their organizations and the economy at large, as well as their careers.
Ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inaugural proclamation, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" in the depths of the Great Depression, there has been a special significance of "the first 100 days." Whether considering U.S. Presidents, new CEOs, or new leaders at any level, this period has become the yardstick for assessing the quality of a new leader's start.
In over three years of research on leadership transitions, Arcus has come to recognize that getting off to a strong start establishes the foundation upon which long-term success is built. Done well, it creates momentum for the next 100 days, and 100 days after that, all the way to enduring success.
Done poorly, it squanders a unique opportunity during which leaders get the benefit of the doubt, and when their authority and influence come more from the appointment than from accomplishment.
So if you're one of the leaders who will soon be starting a new position -- or if you want to revitalize your current position -- here are seven steps to follow:
1. Prepare Yourself During the "Countdown Period"
Before you start your new job, get prepared and do your homework. Read everything you can, and speak to the smartest observers to understand the company's competitive positioning, assess its issues and opportunities, and evaluate the organizational culture and the quality of the management team.
If you'll be relocating, consider leaving your family at home for a while to immerse yourself in your new circumstances and to avoid the additional stress of having your spouse and/or children leave their friends and routines behind. At the same time, get in shape physically and emotionally. If you neglect your health, that's not going to do you, your company, or your family any good.
2. Align Expectations
Setting proper expectations is one of the most important things a new leader has to do, and it's also one of the most easily mishandled. A very common pitfall is to try to be a hero and make bold promises that can't be delivered or sustained.
In your earliest interactions with new employees, recognize that most will be listening through the lens of their own self-interest -- "Will this new boss be good or bad for me?" So focus on answering the five questions: Who am I? What do I hope to accomplish? Where did I come from? Why am I here? And how do I hope to do it?
3. Shape Your Management Team
Unless you have to clean house when taking over a business in regulatory or financial crisis, it's preferable to act deliberately in building your management team. The "good" people should have to prove themselves all over again, and the ones that may be on the bubble should get a brand new chance.
Finding a way of critically assessing the talent around you will show people that you won't be rash or play favorites. You may be surprised -- some who had been labeled as underperformers may actually thrive in the new environment that you establish. Ultimately, the team has to reflect your values, buy into the vision, and have complementary skills so that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.
4. Craft Your Strategic Agenda
Many people think that they have to deliver a detailed strategic plan at the end of the first 100 days. Don't fall into this sucker's trap. If you do, your plan will probably be wrong. Even if it's right, chances are that it'll lack the necessary buy-in from the people needed for successful execution. The goal, rather, should be to develop a strategic "agenda" that puts enough structure around issues, opportunities, priorities, and actions to get the organization moving in the right direction.
Don't underestimate the pressure that will be put on you, both from within the organization and from outside, to deliver the plan. To help keep these forces at bay, follow the many other leaders who have been able to cite the now well-known precedent of IBM's Lou Gerstner about not needing a vision right now.
5. Assess and Start Transforming the Culture
As most people know, organizational culture is one of the most intransigent things to change. So don't try to transform it in the first 100 days. Assess the culture, and begin the change process slowly.
The way to start assessing a culture is to listen to how people really describe the organization, bearing in mind that within most generalizations lie an inner core of truth. Ask probing questions relentlessly, not only among the most senior people, but to those who others cite as thought leaders. Visit not only your largest customers, but also the smartest ones as well. You can be sure that they will give you feedback.
Play the role of anthropologist, searching for clues among the language people use and through physical evidence such as office layout, dress code, and the cafeteria. Once you finish your assessment, start experimenting with measures of success, incentive systems, and operating structures to find productive ways to get traction on the desired behaviors.
6. Establish a Productive Working Relationship with Your Board or Boss
Whether you report to a board or to a boss, the best place to start establishing a productive relationship is to understand their motivations. This includes the straightforward goals of building shareholder value and achieving strategic, financial, and organizational objectives.
The savvy leader is also sensitive to the unstated motivations as well, such as directors' concern with minimizing their professional liability, maintaining their hard-earned reputations, and managing their busy calendars. In the case of bosses, their greatest desire is generally to receive high-quality advice and loyalty, such that their own careers are enhanced.
Effective communication skills are the key to implementing just about everything, not only during the first 100 days, but all throughout your career. Unless you can communicate your goals and approach in a way that inspires others, your work to align expectations, shape your management team, craft your strategic agenda, and enhance the company's culture will count for naught. You will have wasted the organization's readiness for change in the earliest days.
Successful communications starts with knowing your audience and establishing an emotional connection to your message. Remember that you have to repeat your message over and over again until it sinks in. If you find yourself in a crisis, get the information out immediately and acknowledge the real challenges of the situation to establish credibility, which underlies all effective communications. Make sure not to come across as a know-it-all, which would turn people off and shut you down.
New leaders' actions -- both good and bad -- create a ripple effect across organizations. If the thousands of new executives and millions of new managers follow these steps, then the current year should shape up to be a very good one indeed. And if you apply them wisely, you'll create the momentum on which to build your career.
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